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Want To Start A Reno But Not Sure HOW??? Contractor 101: Tips, Tricks and Actual Matchmaking With Jean Brownhill

Ok, there are few things more intimidating (in the design world) than the planning stages of a reno… especially if it’s your first time. It’s basically like having a baby. You dream of happy days, plan how you will raise them right, and check to see if having one will put you into financial ruin. Ha. It’s wonderful and terrifying. However, the good thing about a renovation is that you have help. You don’t have to “raise” your new little bathroom on your own because your wonderful contractor will help make sure everything is done just right so that your bathroom will one day become a doctor, noble peace prize winner, or even President. THE DREAM. But finding this magical contractor that you can trust can be difficult if you don’t know where to start.

We get A TON of renovation/contractor questions which makes sense because like I said it can be intimidating. So to alleviate all (or hopefully many) of your burning questions we decided to turn to the contractor finding pro, Jean Brownhill. Jean is the founder/CEO of Sweeten which is basically a matchmaking service for people who need to find awesome, trusted contractors. Later in the post, she talks about her story and why she started this GENIUS company but first let’s dive into all of the contractor questions.

WAIT one more thing! The fun doesn’t stop with this post. For even more answers (and a chance to ask your own) on this super cool topic, head to Instagram for my first EVER IG Live. I avoided doing one as long as I could because, well, it scared me but this is too important/useful not to give as much info as possible. It’s going to so fun and informative and it starts at 12 PST. Ok now we can actually get started…

Where should someone start when attempting a renovation?

There are many reasons to renovate—a growing family, work transitions, your space needs a refresh (or a full gut…)—whatever the motivation, the first step is to identify the “must-have” elements for your space. Have an idea of what’s definitively required, then make a second wishlist of “nice-to-haves.” This includes all of the changes you’d like to see but might be willing to forgo as you consider your budget. Once you have your lists, you’ll have a better understanding of whether you need an architect and/or a designer, and you’ll, of course, need a general contractor to execute the renovation. 

Your wishlists and your financial resources need to be realistic. Sweeten’s cost guides are a good starting point to get a handle on your budget. The costs go up based on the price point of materials you choose. 

What are the top things to look for in a contractor and what questions should you ask?

Contractors aren’t necessarily hard to find; the tricky part is finding the right one for your renovation based on location, budget, scope, and the intangibles that create a positive working relationship. The top of the list is whether both parties share a compatible communication style. Do you prefer phone calls or emails? Do you expect daily updates or will you defer to your contractor to set a cadence? Are you comfortable with your contractor’s plans for keeping you updated? Contractors should also be licensed and insured in states that require these credentials, but that is just a basic starting point. Tuning in to fit will help ensure that you can work together through challenges that come up. 

What are the credentials a contractor should have?

Home improvement credentials vary incredibly widely by state and municipality! Many states require a registration or license which can involve a series of documents and checks and is regularly renewed, some counties have their own process for authorizing work on a company or per-project basis, and some towns and municipalities require steps to register or obtain certain licenses. You should feel welcome to ask your contractor about what is required at each of these levels and get a feel for how they uphold these standards. You should also ask about their insurance coverage and ask that they add you and your residence as an additional insured on their coverage policy. It’s important that this research is done so that your project is covered should an issue arise. Sweeten has already done the legwork and the vetting for every one of their general contractors that a homeowner will be matched with.

What are the red flags? Any cautionary tales?

It’s so tempting to jump at the lowest bid, but contractors are not interchangeable. They offer different services, supports, and have varied portfolios and team structures that can contribute to differences in cost. Bids that are significantly lower can mean that a contractor has low overhead costs (which can signal less comprehensive insurance coverage or a lack of back-office support) or can highlight that a contractor isn’t complying with licensing standards or fair pay for workers. However, if estimates are all within close range, and you like the person who bid the lowest, you communicate well, and love the team’s work, it can be a recipe for a good fit.

How do you feel about day rates versus a total estimate?

We would typically expect to see a full estimate focused on labor and materials. Day rates can contribute to the way that labor costs are calculated but it would be unusual to undertake a major renovation on a day rate basis. And more importantly, your contract is probably going to be derived directly from the estimate that you receive, so a detailed estimate is valuable because it will lead to more specific and accurate contract terms.

Are there general ways to save money during a renovation?

The most direct way to minimize cost is to leave walls and major fixtures where they are. Moving walls, electrical, plumbing, and gas lines puts your project in a more transformative category that typically comes with additional costs for permits and specialized labor. Not that you shouldn’t think big! Just that you should be prepared for the grittier and more expensive behind-the-scenes steps that come along with major work. 

Reader Question: How do you minimize lead time and waiting around for materials to arrive? 

Lead times vary widely by vendor, manufacturing location, and stock availability. If you have your heart set on a specific handmade tile or showpiece appliance, contact the vendor directly and ask about lead time so that your process accounts for what can be a full 12 weeks or more for a specialty item. This is an eternity in renovation time when you don’t, say, have a working bathroom…!

The ideal scenario is to have everything selected and ordered before the renovation begins, but early delivery of some materials and fixtures might be impractical (no one wants to live with a giant fridge in the living room for months), so track lead times and work with your contractor to ensure that your plan generally accommodates availability, delivery, and installation sequence.

final photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: portland project: the entry & staircase reveal

Reader Question: What are some mistakes that really cost you – like say a large gap between stove & counter??

Changing your mind on a feature that has already been fabricated or installed can have costly implications, so you really have to understand what you are agreeing to before work kicks off, or be prepared to adjust and work with your contractor to problem solve.

Even small details can have a domino effect on work that has already been done: case in point — we changed the hinges on a bathroom door in our office because we wanted more privacy near the door. This small adjustment meant that the light switch was now out of reach, and moving the light switch disconnected the trigger to the bathroom’s vent. That’s a lot of headache for something as simple as a door flip! It’s not always possible to forecast every single consequence, so be gracious about working with your contractor to understand the implications of your decisions.

Reader Question: 6 weeks from kitchen demo day? What do I need to have done, or do, so it goes so smoothly? 

Exciting! At this stage, you and your contractor should be aligned or in progress on several key points: 

  • Documentation is in place (do you have a signed contract that clearly outlines the game plan?)
  • Project scope and budget are clearly defined (do you know what you want to do and what you can spend to achieve it?)
  • Work will be allowed to kick off (do you need local permits or approval from a building management or board?)
  • Materials are in the pipeline (do you know what you’re buying and who is handling order and delivery?)
  • Day-to-day access is clear (do you have a plan for preparing food for you and any family members while your kitchen basics are offline and do you have what you need to steer clear of the space as much as possible?)

Reader Question: How do you know that a quote is a fair price and timeline? 

Not only is every project different, but labor costs and local requirements vary widely in different neighborhoods and regions, so it is really challenging to set a “fair” price. This is why it’s critical to get multiple estimates so you can understand how crews in your neighborhood value the work. 

Timelines also have many dependencies and project progress doesn’t always look linear. Your contractor should generally schedule the crew to maximize progress, but may also have to balance availability of materials, condo building work-day rules, logical work sequencing, natural pauses in work while materials cure or set, individual crew member health and family issues, and commitments on other projects. These are all moving pieces. 

Larger, more established teams may be able to manage these components seamlessly while smaller teams may have to incorporate gaps in crew schedules in order to run their businesses — and you may see associated costs or savings in accordance with different levels of service. We don’t want to see unplanned or unexplained work stoppages but don’t be surprised if a crew is not onsite from 9am to 5pm, 5 days a week.

We know every project is different but is there a minimum cost for say a full bathroom or kitchen reno?

Again, labor costs and local requirements vary widely in different neighborhoods and regions, so it is really challenging to set a minimum cost across the country. This is why it’s critical to get multiple estimates.

You can do some advance prep on the materials side because products like sinks and stoves generally have prices set nationally, and because you have more control over material costs than you do over labor costs. Start your research by looking at the major fixtures in the space and decide where you’d like to be on the cost range available. Do you want a $50 utility faucet or a $2,000 showpiece? Do you want a $400 electric stove or a $6,000 Italian gas range? Establish where you stand on the pieces you have control over and this will help illustrate your starting point before you account for labor.

photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: portland master bedroom reveal (and how to pull together your own dreamy suite)

What advice can you give people who are in the process of picking back up their reno plans now that we are slowly getting back to business?

We’re looking for three levels of consensus right now: is your state and municipality allowing work to resume? Are you comfortable having a team in your space? And is your contractor ready to resume work as safely as possible? If all of those factors are aligned, get started with a virtual site visit and confirm that any estimates you have already received are still relevant because contractors may need to account for additional safety equipment and precautions that could affect their offer. Right now, many contractors have openings in their schedules and may be eager to jump-start a project. As regions re-open, we expect to see increased demand and a squeeze on contractor availability, so this is a great time to plan and prep if you can get going.

Reader Question: Tips for advocating for yourself/speaking up if you aren’t happy when you hate confrontation? 

Always give your contractor an opportunity to address a concern you have. This is communication — not confrontation! They are invested in having a happy client and a future referral, so if you aren’t speaking up because you want to avoid confrontation, you are doing a disservice both to yourself and to your team!

Stay invested in the relationship and nurture it just as you would any professional partnership. If you see an issue, describe it in a neutral way: focus on what you observe and avoid side commentary about unrelated things. For example, tell your GC that you notice that the grout lines on the backsplash are not equal in size and let them suggest an improvement, rather than complaining that you don’t like the backsplash and of course they must not have measured correctly…! 

Finally, I would love to hear about your business and why you started it!

Sweeten is a platform that matches home renovation projects with vetted general contractors, offering advice, support, and financial protection until the end of the project—at no cost to the homeowner. We know our contractors well and build relationships with them over the long term — these partnerships are vital in maintaining trust on projects over time. We take all that into consideration when matching homeowners and contractors.

I graduated from Cooper Union with a degree in architecture and went the traditional route of working for a well-known firm in New York City. After 6 years at 2 different firms, I made the jump in-house to Coach, working on their real estate development team handling global architecture for the next 4 years. After working hard and saving, I purchased my first home in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. Having spent a lot of time in the construction/design industry, I felt confident about starting my own remodel. However, I wasn’t prepared for what became a terrible experience. Despite my insider knowledge and also as a trained architect, I still wound up hiring the wrong general contractor. This showed me that there is a huge gap between what homeowners know and what they actually need to know in order to renovate. 

Out of my painful experience, combined with my passion for problem-solving, I created Sweeten. With Sweeten, homeowners can enter the details of their renovation project and be matched with a shortlist of fully vetted, licensed, and insured general contractors, while having access to expert-level support to help bridge the gaps in knowledge and trust, plus peace of mind that Sweeten is here to help until the project is completed.

It’s me again. Some of this I knew and totally agree with and some I hadn’t thought of but WOW is so incredibly helpful. I can’t thank Jean enough for taking the time to answer these questions and being my first IG Live guest (remember it’s at noon PST). Let me know if you have any other general, general contractor questions, tips from your own experience, or even horror stories. Are any of you about to start a project? Let’s talk all about them in the comments xx

Final Opening Photo Credit: Photo by Sara Ligorria-Tramp | From: It’s Finally Here: The Reveal of the Mountain House Kitchen

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3 years ago

I’d love to know if anyone has tips on how to work with your GC if you want to be very hands on – like want to go your own route on ordering cabinets or tile, rather than using their preferred vendor. Beyond the relationships they have, I figure some of their fees come from the work of managing those purchases. Would love thoughts on that!

3 years ago
Reply to  Sarah

It obviously differs greatly from country to country, but we’ve always said upfront what we’ll be sourcing so that our contractor knows what they needs to supply. For instance in our bathroom, we supply all the items that are aesthetic choices and let the plumber supply the actual plumbing pipes etc that might be necessary. I usually have a sheet with all the product specifications and sometimes our contractor might add things that you didn’t even think of! We are also usually ready with all our choices at the quotation stage and can sometimes say where we’ll source things, which helps put your contractor at ease if they are concerned with the quality of the items. This will probably allow your contractor to factor in extra costs if necessary, but I don’t think it happens in South Africa. I love being “hands-on” and hope you enjoy it too!

3 years ago
Reply to  Astrid

I would second Astrid’s advice to know up-front what you want to source. My dad is a GC (in the US) and some contractors won’t let you stray too far from their vendors and others are more open. The reason for this being they’ve been burned in the past. Perfect example – my dad had a client who ordered all of her own cabinets from IKEA but measured wrong. My dad agreed to assemble them but they had to be sent back and it delayed the project A LONG time. She was unhappy with him even though it was her fault (I’m not saying you would do this, just an example). And this is why some GCs just won’t deal with it or push back on going outside of their knowledge base. The reality is you pay a GC for their time to manage all the subs and their knowledge of who in your area is reliable, does quality work and offers a fair price. The more of that you take on, the less responsibility a GC might take on or the more they will charge you to fix mistakes. In addition to my dad, I have a design degree… Read more »

3 years ago
Reply to  Sarah

I would use caution on this one. We’ve done extensive remodeling in our house, all using the same amazing contractor. Before we started, I had no idea about renovating – I was completely green. So I started the process bringing in my own “floor guy” and painter. Both ended up being a pain in the butt – for me! The floor guy, a referral from a friend, ended up one morning YELLING at me on the phone. $1500 in attorney fees to write him a letter saying we were not going to use his services – ouch. AND the jerk floor guy could have easily taken us to small claims and won, per my attorney, b/c my reason for breaking the contract was not sound. The painter, while he’s a great painter (and I still use him to this day, for general painting/not construction), it was something I had to manage in the reno process (so I was like a middle-woman). I saw firsthand how much a contractor manages – let him/her manage all the moving parts, and the people (for jobs he subs out). Construction is a crazy business, and that means some folks are crazy – your contractor… Read more »

Erin Reimer
3 years ago
Reply to  Sarah

Some contractors do let you source your own finish materials, but you need to know this when you are getting estimates. Some contractors will choose not to bid if you announce this upfront which will save you time. Create an RFP (request for proposal) and list each item you plan to supply and the items they will need to supply and include in their costs. Include any tasks that will need to be done (move light switches, etc), floor plans you have, photos, and project boards you’ve made so they have a clear scope of the project. It will get you a more accurate estimate. Include the product information for the items you plan to supply yourself. I’ve had some contractors offer to buy the items for me and only charge me their contractor cost (pretty big discount!) That way they control the lead times for a more seamless project. Do NOT order your cabinets yourself! This was a big learning moment for me unfortunately. The measurements were off because I thought the total depth measurement would include the doors and they do not. Apparently any carpenter would know this, but I didn’t. There were other problems with the measurements… Read more »

3 years ago

Thanks so much, Emily and Jean! I signed up with Sweeten, but since I live in a backwater, there were no contractors they could recommend right now. My projects are utilitarian: first: broken orangeburg in the interior and underground drainpipes from my flat roof (this absolutely confounds contractors when I call — why? Don’t commercial buildings have this kind of roof drainage? *Somebody* must know how to work on it). Second: a 7′ retaining wall that’s starting to crack and buckle. Everyone who’s given me an estimate wants to just slap new stucco or fake rock on it and not consider any — um — *structural* issues. Third: My floors are from the 1980s and needs replacing, but I have in-floor radiant hot-water heat and no contractors or big-box flooring store managers can even give me a list of the right kind of flooring to use. I currently have those 9″ x 9″ DIY wood parquet tiles everywhere (and indoor-outdoor carpet in the kitchen, for some unfathomable reason) and between the drainpipes leaking and one tiny copper pipe breaking in the heat system, it’s really suffered. Wish I could have something lovely done like your kitchen renovation, and who knows,… Read more »

3 years ago
Reply to  Irene

Irene – we installed in floor hot water radiant heat in a new addition. The pipes are under the slab. We installed engineered hardwood (slab friendly, no nails, tongue and groove is glued together but the floor floats). The heat keeps up just fine. We have ceramic tile in the laundry room and that works well too (and feels even better since you can feel more heat come thru ceramic than wood!)

3 years ago
Reply to  j

Thank you so much, j!

3 years ago
Reply to  Irene

Hi, for the second item you need to hire a structural engineer to evaluate the retaining wall. He/she will give you a definitive answer as to what is needed, THEN you hire a contractor. I’m sure this is not what you want to hear, but a contractor doesn’t always have the background to understand the problem and the best ones will tell you so and recommend an engineer. FYI, I am not an engineer, but I am a project manager that used to be an architect. Good luck to you.

3 years ago

UGH contractors. We are just finishing up a big reno that tore apart 2/3 of our house for 12 months and I don’t feel great about it. We got drawings from an architectural technologist who also handled the building permit with the city, and then based on those drawings I sought out 3 quotes from contractors, they came back at $70k, $150k and $270k – like what the heck was I supposed to do with those?! Spoiler: we went with the $70k guy hence why our “2 month” reno is now hitting month 12 and I cried almost every day for the first 6 months… (and in the end we’re looking at more like $120k total so I deeply regret not going with the middle quote who would’ve saved a lot of time and hassle for a relatively small additional amount)

Discouraged in DC
3 years ago

Sweeten: Please expand your service to the DC metro area! We have done major renovations on two houses and will not use either of the GCs again. We are now about to embark on renovation number three, which will be in excess of $200k. Needless to say, with our past experiences we are dreading the contractor-finding phase of the process. We did all the “right” things — multiple quotes (knew enough to stay away from the lowball quotes), interviewing, previous client contacts, online research, etc. It’s so hard to find good ones!

3 years ago

Kind of petty in the grand scheme of things, but I learned the hard way to make sure I don’t have smoking contractors/subs who want to listen to Rush Limbaugh all day while they work if I am going to be in the house at the same time.

Surround yourself with that for months of a major reno and you’re ready to scream … or at least I was.

3 years ago

How many times in your life do you ever find yourself in a position of yelling at another grown up? I had never EVER yelled at someone (except for my kids and husband maybe a few times in say, 20 years) UNTIL I got the wrong contractor for my first reno 10 years ago. I was living in a fully demo-ed house with no end in sight and SCREAMING at my contractor for the many many things he did wrong. He ended up bringing in a colleague to fix the problems who happened to be a woman GC and I went on to renovate 3 more houses with her (including 2 rentals) and we are now going into business together!

Don’t think this added much to the discussion but just voicing the fact that renovating is very stressful AND having the right GC is most critical to the whole endeavor!

Discouraged in DC
3 years ago
Reply to  Anne

Anne – Would you happen to be in the DC area‽ This is a great recommendation!